4 Overview with Geography

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Now that you have some framework for understanding I will tell you the story of the Old Testament a third time. This time I will focus more on communicating to you the chronology and geography of the stories. Being able to visualize where things are happening is helpful to understand and remember a story. Before I go into that, I want to give you some advice.

What about the “boring” sections?

One of the problems you might have when reading the Old Testament is what to do with the boring sections. Calling them boring doesn’t demean them. It does not mean that they are not inspired by God or valuable. It is really a comment on us readers. It is true that some sections are much harder for us to read with interest than others. The most obvious ones are sections that are mostly information intended for someone other than ourselves. These include genealogies, instructions for ceremonies, geographical descriptions of borders, or the details of constructing certain buildings. I think that many people who try to read the Old Testament quit because there are three genealogies in the first 11 chapters. I want to give you some advice here on how to deal with genealogies, and detailed ceremonial or building instructions. Here is my advice for you as you begin to read the Old Testament: Skip the boring sections. Please skip them. Even though they are valuable and useful, for you they will only be a hindrance at this point. Later, you can go back and read them, but for now, just skim past them. Remember, reading the Bible does not make God love you more. You are not penalized if you do not “do it right.” You do not get bonus points for reading the whole thing. The reason we read the Bible is not to master its contents, but to know the God who speaks through it, so if part of it hinders this, leave it for now. Reading it in order to know more is actually harmful and results in Christians who know their Bible far better than they know their God.

Foundations

The Bible begins with stories that focus on the foundation of the world, the human race’s rebellion, (or the Fall of Man), and how God dealt with the human race in the earliest times. These are the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood. They establish the foundation for everything that follows by explaining why the world is the way it is. These stories answer basic human questions such as why the world seems on the one hand so good and on the other so bad. They tell us about the origins of such universal issues as good and evil, marriage, society, God’s purpose for us and so forth. You will find them in the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

Family

God chose one family to use to bless the world. The rest of the book of Genesis contains the stories of this family: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They tell how God chose one man, Abraham, whose offspring would grow into a nation, Israel, and using that nation God would bless all the families of the earth. This blessing He promises includes the repair of what we have destroyed and forgiveness for the sins we have committed. Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, had twelve sons. The descendants of each of these sons would collectively be a distinct tribe. These are the “twelve tribes of Israel.” The nation these tribes constitute will collectively be known as “the sons of Israel” or just “Israel.” God sent this large family to Egypt. The story pauses here at the end of Genesis with some of God’s promises fulfilled (Abraham had many descendants), but others not yet fulfilled, because they were not yet a nation and did not have the Promised Land. They were waiting.

Fulfillment and Failure

After several hundred years in Egypt the story begins again. Israel had grown from a large family into a nation. They also became slaves. This is the situation at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Lord heard their cries for relief and sent Moses to them. God used Moses to strike their oppressors, the Egyptians, and to lead his people to the land He had promised them. He lead them through the Red Sea, fed them daily with manna from heaven and, in the form of a covenant, called the Sinai Covenant or the Law of Moses, gave them His instructions including the Ten Commandments. These instructions also included directions for building a tent where the nation would worship God, called the Tabernacle. God also selected the tribe of Levi to perform the services at the Tabernacle, and the family of Moses’ brother Aaron to be priests that would offer sacrifices for the people. However, the people grumbled, disobeyed and rebelled again and again so that the Lord decreed that the generation that had been brought out of Egypt would not go into the Promised Land. Their children would. Therefore, they had to wait in the wilderness until that whole generation died before God gave them the land. This part of the story is found in Exodus – Deuteronomy. So, just like Genesis, the first five books also end with forward movement of God’s plan (Israel was now a nation), but not final fulfillment (they weren’t in the Promised Land). Again, this section ends on a note of waiting.

Finally, Joshua led the nation into the land of Canaan. The generation that entered the land was generally faithful to God, listening to his voice and obeying his instructions. This is found in the book of Joshua. Sadly, as soon as Joshua died, the people began to turn away from the true God to serve other gods. Israel descended into a time of chaos, recorded in the book of Judges, where each person did what they thought was the right thing. For several hundred years Israel experienced a cycle. They would abandon their mission to be a distinct people who only followed the Lord and began worshiping the gods of their neighbors. So the Lord allowed them to be conquered by their neighbors. Since they didn’t want to serve God, the Lord let them see what service to others was like. Eventually, the people would cry out for deliverance, and the Lord would be moved by the cries of his people. He would send them a deliverer (translated “judge” in most Bibles), who would lead Israel to victory over their enemies. Israel would then live faithfully as long as the deliverer was alive, but after he died, they fell back into sin, starting the cycle again. This was not a good time for Israel. The book of Judges makes it clear that even the deliverers themselves were not always faithful and godly people.

Kings

The last of the deliverers was Samuel. When he was an old man, Israel asked for a king so they could be like the nations around them. Even though the Lord knew that this was a rejection of Him, He selected a king for Israel. His name was Saul, and he was tall and handsome – exactly the kind of king the people had had in mind. Sadly, Saul was not a faithful king. He had a mixed legacy, uniting Israel, but being more concerned with maintaining his own power than with following what God desires. He was a king just like the kings of Israel’s neighbors. Eventually the Lord announced that because of Saul’s disobedience he was through with Saul. He would appoint another king.

He selected David. David was a faithful king who desired to follow the Lord and lead the people well. He was a successful military leader. Among other things, he conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city. Under his rule, Israel was never defeated and the nation prospered. After this, the people of Israel would always look back at this time period as their golden age. The Lord promised David that his descendants would rein over Israel forever. This is called the Davidic Covenant. David had an eventful life, wrote many of the Psalms, committed a grave sin, and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness. When he died he passed the kingdom on to his son Solomon.

Solomon was a king with a mixed legacy. When the Lord came to him in a dream, offering to fulfill whatever Solomon asked of him, Solomon asked for wisdom to rule well. The Lord was pleased with this and gave Solomon not only wisdom, but wealth, peace and success as well. He built a glorious Temple in Jerusalem to replace the Tabernacle that the nation had been using since the days of Moses. As he ruled, Solomon grew in wealth and power until he was the richest king Israel ever had. In his wealth he took many foreign women to be his wives and these wives drew him away from the Lord so that he even participated with them in worshiping other gods. His rule grew oppressive so that when he finally died, the people were glad to see him go.

Kingdoms

Because Solomon abandoned the Lord for other gods, when he died God tore away most of the nation and gave it to another man to rule, Jeroboam. The divide of the Kingdom of Israel into two occurred just a little north of Jerusalem. The bulk of the nation following Jeroboam. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, ruled the smaller southern kingdom. The previous era, before Israel was divided, was called the United Kingdom and lasted about 120 years. This new situation, called the Divided Kingdom, lasted for a little over 200 years, with the Northern kingdom, called Israel, being richer but much less stable than the Southern. Assassinations and civil wars led to many changes of the ruling family. One reason for this was that the Northern kingdom never really enjoyed the blessing of God because their first king, Jeroboam, made two golden calves and put them in two different cities for the people of Israel to worship instead of their true God in the temple in Jerusalem. Until the end of the kingdom, every northern king continued this policy which was in direct disobedience to the instructions the Lord gave through Moses. The Southern kingdom, called Judah after the large and powerful tribe that was the core of it, continued to be ruled from Jerusalem by the descendants of David, as the Lord had promised. These kings varied in their faithfulness, but most of the time Judah was ruled by generally good kings.

It was during this time that the Lord began sending prophets to warn the people about their disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant and it was in this time period (the Divided Kingdom) that the Prophetic books began to be written. Under the kings, tribal and clan life slowly broke down and was replaced by centrally-controlled royal administrators. The traditional legal protections God had given were ignored. These ensured that families could not permanently lose their land and that Hebrew slaves could only be kept for six years. More and more a small wealthy elite oppressed the poor. This was the consequence of abandoning God’s ways and is largely what the prophets spoke against. Eventually, the time came when the Lord’s patience with the Northern kingdom came to an end. As God had long warned them, He sent the Assyrians, who conquered them and took many of the Israelites to settle as exiles in other lands the Assyrians controlled, far from the Promised Land.

The time period that follows is called the era of the Surviving kingdom, because only the Southern kingdom remained. It lasted about 135 years. Prophets continued to warn the people and rulers that they, too would be cast out of the land if they did not live faithfully according to what Moses had commanded them. Some of the kings in this period were good and some were bad, but the trajectory of the nation was downward. They continued to disobey the Lord, ignoring and killing His prophets until God finally sent the Babylonians who captured Jerusalem, leveled it to the ground, and brought the people back to Babylon to live as exiles. This part of the story is recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

Kicked Out

This period of time, which lasted about 70 years, is called the Exile. Though it was the time of the prophet Daniel, not much else happened in it. But the fact that it happened is very important to the history of the Old Testament.

Came Back

Even though they did nothing to earn a reprieve, God allowed Israel to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls and the Temple. People wondered why they were not ruled by a descendant of David, and the Lord told them that he had not forgotten his promise to David, but that they must be ruled by other nations for a time. This is the era of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The Old Testament ends at this point, with Israel waiting for a future deliverance – specifically for a son of David to take the throne. They had to wait about 400 years and then, at the right time, Jesus, a descendant of David, was born. Notice that the pattern of waiting runs through the whole Bible. The Old Testament ends on a note of waiting. God had done great things, but more was coming. It is the same for us today. Jesus has come, died, and rose from the dead. Yet we are waiting for the next move in God’s plan, just as Israel was in the years before Jesus.

Geography

One thing that makes the Bible stand out from many other religious books is that it is about real events that really happened at a particular place and a particular time. Jesus was a real man who lived in Palestine in the first century who actually died and rose from the dead. We can visit the place he died and see the empty tomb. The Old Testament is also about real events that really happened in the real world. It isn’t a bunch of ideas that exist in the spiritual realm.

Because the Old Testament is about real events it often mentions geographical places where these events occurred. So having some understanding of the geography of these events will help you make sense of what you are reading. A lot of detailed information is available. However, most of this you don’t have to know in order to understand what is going on. In fact, when I was a child of, say, ten, I read and basically understood these stories even though I had no idea where hardly any of these locations were. I knew where Egypt was, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea (which wasn’t that helpful, since it isn’t mentioned very often), and a few other places. But to know where the Hill Country of Ephraim was or Bethel, or Beersheeba, I had no idea. I could still follow what was happening. When I learned the geography it did sometimes help me understand what was going on better, but it didn’t change the point of the story.

Because geography is important, but not very important, I won’t give you very much of it, just enough to get you oriented.

Most of what happened in the Old Testament happened in the land of Canaan, or, as it was later called, Palestine. This is where the nation of Israel lived. Here is a map that shows where it is in relation to other nations. I have labeled it “Israel.”

The most important things to know on this map are where Israel is in relation to Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Egypt was Israel’s rich and powerful neighbor to the south. Assyria and Babylon are important because Abraham was living in this part of the world when God called him. This is where Israel was taken into exile. Although Assyria and Babylonia was mostly east of Palestine, the land directly between them was desert, so to get there you had to travel north. That is why the Bible will sometimes talk about the Assyrians or Babylonians as being in or from the north. The region I have labeled Babylonia is where the Tower of Babel was built. It is also where Abraham was when God called him and where the Israelite exiles were taken into captivity after Jerusalem was destroyed.

Here is a map of Palestine showing its physical characteristics.

You see that starting from the Mediterranean Sea, first there is a coastal plain, then foothills, then much more rugged hills and valleys. The hill country was where Israel settled when they first entered the Land under Joshua and it remained the heart and most important part of their territory. Most of the stories that take place within the Promised Land take place in the hill country.

If you want to picture the land back then by looking at photographs of Palestine today, you should know that Palestine went through two periods of significant deforestation after the days of Joshua, so the hill country was greener in the time of the Old Testament than it is today.

I have divided the hill country into that of Judah and that of Ephraim. This is because sometimes a story will use these terms to specify where in the hill country something takes place. Knowing exactly where these regions are is not vital to understanding the story, but it is good to know that Judah is in the south.

The Jezreel Valley was the most fertile part of the land, but was not controlled by Israel until they had had several generations of powerful kings. Many of the later stories that take place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (in 1 and 2 Kings) take place here.

The Negev was desert during the dry season (May – September), but green during the rainy season (October – April). Because of this, people couldn’t live there year-round unless they lived near a well. The Negev was important, though, because shepherds such as Abraham, would take their flocks to the nearer portions every year when there was grass, and return to the settled areas during the dry season to graze their flocks on the stubble of farmers’ fields.

Here is the Promised Land with a few basic locations.

Besides the Mediterranean Sea to the west (or Great Sea, as they called it), the most obvious feature of the Promised Land was the Jordan River which runs from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. Typically, civilizations spread along rivers, but since the Jordan river moves too fast for boats and is too dirty for good drinking water, as far as we can tell, no city has ever been on its banks. The area around the river was actually more wild than the rest of the land. Because the Jordan is so wild and unfriendly and the Israelites were not a sea-faring people, these bodies of water only serve as borders and barriers in the Old Testament.

The Jordan River is the most important border because it divides the Promised Land into an eastern and western side. Stories will mention crossing it or use it as a way to explain where locations are by saying it is “across the Jordan.” This phrase always refers to the land on the east side of the Jordan river, even though from the point of view of someone living on that side, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other places are “across the Jordan.” In the Old Testament, the point of view is always centered in the land of Palestine between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

Another way the Old Testament writers explained something to be on the east side of the Jordan, they referred to that place as Gilead. This was a large region on the east side of the river. So whenever a place has the word “Gilead” in the name, it is on the east side.

I have put some important places on the map for you to see. You can see that they are all in the hill country except for Beersheba which is in the Negev. Beersheba is important because it was perceived as the southernmost city in Israel. Dan (off the map to the north) was the northernmost city, so the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba” means, “the whole land.”

Here is a map to show you where Israel’s most important immediate neighbors lived.

Ammon, Moab and Edom were small kingdoms that were present in the land before Israel came to the Promised Land. God told Israel that He had given the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites the land they each lived on and so Israel must not take it from them.

These peoples were related to Israel: Ammon and Moab were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot and Edom from Jacob’s brother, Esau.

Aram: The Arameans were an ethnic and cultural group that lived in powerful city-states in modern-day Syria. Damascus was the most prominent. They are important in the books of 1 and 2 Kings.

Philistines: A confederation of city-states. For three to four generations the Philistines struggled with Israel over control of the foothills between Israel’s highlands and their own territory on the coastal plain. Because the Old Testament contains a lot of stories from this time (Samson, Samuel, Saul and David), it gives the impression that the Philistines were Israel’s arch-enemies. This was only true for that period if time. Overall, the Philistines seem to have caused less trouble for Israel than most of their other neighbors. The region is today called “Palestine” after the Philistines.

Tyre: A wealthy city of sea-faring Canaanites (today we call them Phoenicians). It always wanted to have good relations with whatever nations controlled the roads that merchants used to travel to Tyre and buy the goods Tyre’s ships brought from across the sea. So when Israel was a powerful kingdom and controlled the trade that came from the south, Tyre was a friend. When Israel was not a kingdom or was weak, Tyre ignored it.

Name

Famous stories and people

Foundations

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood

Family

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph

Fulfillment and Failure

Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Kings

Saul, David, Solomon

Kingdoms

Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah

Kicked Out

Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace

Came Back

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

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